An era of exploration! A place of adventure! Follow along as a troupe of intrepid survivors muster their courage for the dangers ahead! Dangers from the… Age of Serpents – September’s Campaign of the Month! Join me as I trek through the “Tropes of the Jungle” with Jim_Mount, the GameMaster of this Jungle Opera!
First off, feel free to tell us about the person behind the GM screen. Where are you from? What do you do aside from gaming? Alter Egos? Wife and kids? Where can we stalk you on the internet. Let us know if you feel so inclined!
Let me say first that it is a fantastic, utterly wonderful feeling to have our campaign highlighted as CotM. There are so many well-done and visually exciting pages on OP, to be singled out this month is a huge honor. Other than this game I share with a group of amazing, understanding, creative and enthusiastic friends, life has been increasingly challenging lately and, well, to have my work recognized here is a huge pick-me-up. I know my players are excited, too.
My name is Jim, no alter-egos, just my own name. Not much of an online presence other than the forums here at OP. I live in Chicago, born and raised, but I have great friends in Minneapolis where I lived for awhile. I have a 2-year old daughter named Loretta who utterly owns my heart. She’s too young for dice-slinging yet but if I start developing a campaign for her now it will probably be ready by the time she is (I’m, uh, a bit of an over-prepper). Her mother and I are both unrepentant tabletop rpg’ers so I’m fairly certain she’ll want to game with us eventually. Even if she isn’t, that’s okay too.
My other interests revolve around music: psychobilly, goth, horror punk, new wave, and rockabilly; going to shows, catching up with friends in the scene. I also collect Japanese kaiju figures and memorabilia, Gamera is my favorite.
Like every DM, I voraciously consume horror and fantasy media of all kinds, especially creature features, swords and sorcery—but mostly stick to older stuff. I have an fascination for how fantastic fiction and art was presented prior to the 90’s, before everything got sleek and snarky. Everything has to be “meta” nowadays, because the tropes are so obvious to the fandom you have to lampshade them. But wasn’t it fun when we didn’t?
Tell us about Age of Serpents in a nutshell. How did it come to be and how long has the campaign been going on?
I’ve been developing Serpents for over two years now! Age of Serpents is at its core, the Serpent’s Skull adventure path from Paizo, but it is a path that’s become notorious as being one of the poorest developed “out of the box.” I wanted to run it anyway because I love the milieu of turn-of-the-century pulp jungle adventure—lost civilizations, ruins filled with deathtraps, archeological discoveries, headhunters, jungle queens, dinosaurs, and apemen, oh my!
I didn’t find Serpent’s Skull a bad path; in fact it reminded me of really early TSR AD&D modules that provided the bare-bones framework for a setting and required a lot of work by a dedicated DM to flesh out—David Cook’s Dwellers of the Forbidden City is an obvious influence (and on my own campaign as well). Most of the complaints I see about Serpent’s Skull are from those who tried to run it exactly as written. I guess that’s valid, because not everyone has time, and the paths are supposed to reduce prep time, but I really like how much wiggle room I’ve had—even if I hadn’t gone and customized entire chapters and replaced entire factions. Which I did. A lot. Oh, and I shoehorned in a bunch of Age of Worms stuff from an Eberron campaign I tried a few years back that I never got to do before scheduling and travel derailed that particular game.
The last thing I DM’d before Serpents was Zeitgeist, with almost all the same players I have now. Sadly, that campaign got cut short because I moved to Louisville from Chicago after my daughter was born. I started developing Age of Serpents for a new group I contacted over the Paizo boards and put together in Louisville. We played one game, but for a few reasons I decided not to continue with that group. We just didn’t gel, had different expectations, and while the guys made great builds for a standard fantasy game, well, I was looking for Doc Savages, Sheenas, Lara Crofts, Allan Quatermains, your inner Indy yearning to breath free! Think Temple of Doom, I said. Tarzan! King Kong! Johnny Quest. Hell, think TailSpin? When Louisville didn’t work out (for more reasons than gaming) my old Zeitgeist group in Chicago was glad to oblige me with all the pith helms and bullwhips I could ask for. I love these guys! We finally got the campaign going in May and the rest is history (in the making)!
You have very regular adventure log updates. Where and how often do you play?
We try to play three times a month, doing three Tuesdays in a row than a break week. We play at my apartment. Can I talk about my set-up? I’m going to talk about my set-up. I don’t like playing without a face-to-face group, but I use the Roll20 website instead of maps and minis. I used to spend gazillions of monies buying minis and printing out the map images to scale. Never again! I now have my 50″ TV behind me projecting the Roll20 player’s view. My view, along with my notes, the module, and Hero Lab are on my laptop. We use a program called “TeamPlayer” to allow two cursors on the extended display, and the players pass a wireless mouse around to move their tokens on the map.
The best thing about it, other than the money I save, is I actually “like” prepping maps on Roll20 (a chore I hated so much in the past I almost gave up DMing). The other absolute best thing is that if the players go off the rails (which totally don’t really exist) I have a ton of simple little maps and like a million tokens I can just drag and drop in an instant—no more fishing for map tiles, or drawing out walls, or digging through that trunk of minis (and its always a trunk isn’t it?) for your 3 lizardfolk and shambling mound. Aaaand the last, probably best thing about it? The table is freed up for snacks and booze.
LightningPrincess (Monica Montana): We play on Tuesday evenings at 8:00 local time at Jim and my house. I live with Jim and one thing I can say is that for Jim the game doesn’t end there. I see him constantly doing world building and creating things for the game. These would likely be things that are far away from where our characters are now. Jim’s game is probably as detailed as Skyrim or Fallout with lots of open nooks and crannies to explore.
It looks like you’ve chosen Pathfinder for your game system. What made you choose that over say, D&D 3.5, 5e, or other more general options?
First, Pathfinder IS 3.0/3.5. Just a little more fine-tuned, and personalized in a good way. Pathfinder is an extensively tested and lovingly crafted set of house rules for the 3.5 OGL. It isn’t a different game in the way that 3.0 was different from AD&D/2E (which were essentially the same), or that 4E is its own game or 5E is yet another different game (but they all have beholders and displacer beasts). I never really understood reinventing the wheel with each edition. Does anyone else do that? I looked at the most recent Call of Cthulhu and, though I’m sure there are bits here and there, it still seems the same as the game I remember from 30 years ago. Same thing with Palladium. Talk about old school!
I played AD&D as a kid, then moved on to White Wolf when I was an angsty teen. I wanted to get back into D&D and I loved 3rd Edition when it came out, even though some things seemed funny to me. I was like, any race can be any class? Huh. Scrying is a skill? Okay, weird, but I’ll try it out. Well, 3.5 came out a few years later, and yes, I was right, Scrying was a stupid idea for a skill all along. But I’d gotten used to the other stuff. And the thing I absolutely fell in love with about 3.0/3.5, and why I’ll never probably change in my heart of hearts at this point, is this: Everything follows the same rules. The build rules behind everything in the game are the same, or at least appear like they can be broken down the same way. Nothing seems arbitrary, or “just because,” or because “I’m the DM and I said so.” F that! I got way too burnt out on “GM fiat” with White Wolf, and that was as a GM.
Additionally, and this is very important, Paizo’s developers have never made any bones about their products embracing inclusivity. My friends, family, and this particular gaming group includes people of diverse races, genders, orientations, capacities. The fact that the Paizo folks have depicted us in their work, have gone out of their way, online on their message boards and on Reddit, to include and defend us, to have publicly championed our right not to be marginalized in a hobby that is still, unfortunately, sometimes hostile to diversity, means the world to me.
LightningPrincess (Monica Montana): I have many of the Pathfinder books in print and like the system but I have lots of other systems too. You’ll need to ask Jim why he went with Pathfinder but I like the flexibility it offers and also feel it has the right balance of strategic complexity to it.
Do you play in any other systems, or are there others you’ve been interested in trying out?
I’ve played and run just about everything that was out in the 80’s-90’s—so all the White Wolf stuff, Shadowrun, Torg, Palladium. I ran a Vampire LARP in the Twin Cities in the late 90’s that seems fondly remembered by all and included Scott Lynch, who has snuck some of the characters from it in his novels, which gives me a warm fuzzy.
I’ve loved Star Wars Saga and would play that again in a second. Swords and Wizardry looks interesting—I like the rules neutral supplements Frog God does. I’ll do Call of Cthulhu if its not a grognarly Keeper. I’m developing an adventure path for multiple systems that are friendly to pulp-style play, like Savage Worlds and Spirit of the Century, so I’d love to try those out. I’ve wanted to play 45 Psychobilly Retropocalypse since it was released, mostly because that game literally (and I use that word literally) covers all and everything I’m into. Terra is developing a Chronicles of Darkness campaign that I’m going to play and she’s also thinking of running FATE, so I’m game for just about anything.
I’m thinking Ponyfinder will be a good way to introduce Loretta to RPGs. She’s crazy about My Little Pony.
LightningPrincess (Monica Montana): I’m going to be running a Chronicles of Darkness / Mage the Awakening game on Sundays in the fall once I get all the books and can find enough players.
How did you get into tabletop gaming?
I think everyone over 35ish probably answers this the same way. Grammar school, lunch-break, saw a group of kids playing with dice and graph paper, heard someone mention something about dungeons or dragons…
I went a little crazy. I began trading just about everything I owned for other kids’ D&D stuff, which was easy because the other kids usually didn’t want their stuff anymore. I got the red and blue sets, modules, hardback books; usually for marbles or comics or video game cartridges. I got the AD&D Monster Manual for the E.T. Atari game, which I think ranks along or slightly above the purchase of Manhattan for beads as the most one-sided exchange in the history of barter.
Grizzlyadams (Nemanji): My very first campaign was another campaign by Jim called Zeitgeist, where I played a ‘brick wall’ Paladin. I have an affinity for trying to be the shield for the rest of the party, and whenever possible I attempt to do so. Jim has been incredibly helpful, and insightful towards helping me to understand how to make what I envision for my characters. He is an amazing DM, and I am eternally grateful to him for introducing me to the incredible creative outlet of tabletop RPG’s.
LightningPrincess (Monica Montana): Been gaming since I was in 5th grade.
How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?
(Checks own profile…) 2011! Jeezus. I was using another “build your own wiki” for my old Eberron campaign before then as a way to present campaign information to the players. Personal wikis were just starting to come into vogue. It was a pretty fly-by-night site and I’m sure it’s gone now. It was also hard to work with. But then my friend Gordon Benetto introduced me to OP, which did all that I wanted my older wiki to do, had the added benefit of searchable by gamers, was customizable, and I eventually used it to develop Zeitgeist.
LightningPrincess (Monica Montana): Jim brought me back to the site. He has really taken designing the game to the next level with the website.
Your wiki has a very cool “retro television series” style to it! Do you style the wiki yourself or do the players contribute?
Thanks! Like I said, I’m fascinated by the way genre media was portrayed in the past. My aim was to capture the tone set by old pulp adventure serials and magazines. Pulp Magazines Project has been a huge help, especially with the complete PDFs there. I’ve even gotten some incredible scenario ideas from those old stories!
Fair warning, the tales in those old mags are rough on progressive sensibilities in the same way that a lot of Lovecraft and Howard is, but even more extreme if you’re looking at the “jungle adventures.” That said, I rather like subverting those old racist and sexist tropes in my own campaign, while still playing within the conventions of the genre and invoking the overall feel. Fortunately, my players totally get it, and made their characters accordingly.
jlwhitington (Kishtari): Jim’s had a really clear thematic vision for the campaign from the beginning, and that was really helpful in designing our characters. There was already a pretty detailed world for them to live in, and think for all of us, that really makes it more interesting to come up with the little details for your character. As soon as I read that he was adding the Kaleshtar to get some of the “Ancient Aliens” vibe, I knew that’s what I wanted to bring to the party.
LightningPrincess (Monica Montana): The website is all Jim. He’s always working on it. I’m sitting here playing the Sims and Fallout and listening to audiobooks while he is spending his free time working. Its incredible.
If you had to pick just one thing, what would you say Obsidian Portal helps you with the most?
One thing huh? That will require some phrasing gymnastics. Here goes: Obsidian Portal helps me most with selectively presenting information about my campaign to my players, those who might be thinking of running a similar campaign, or people interested in my writing, in a visually flavorful and exciting way.
jlwhitington (Kishtari): For me, the wiki set up is incredibly useful. I’ve been playing DnD a long time, but I’m new to Pathfinder and there is so much lore to the universe that it can be a little overwhelming. But the ability to hyperlink things so I can easily lookup background information has made it much easier to understand the world that we’re playing in.
LightningPrincess (Monica Montana): The website is an incredible resource for keeping up with all the nuances of what’s going on. I am the sort of person who doesn’t just watch a TV show, I go to all the wikis and read character profiles and all that stuff. This game feels like a professional product made by a team of brilliant writers when its really just us and Jim.
How much time do you usually spend prepping your sessions, and how do you go about it?
I wasn’t kidding before, I’m an over-prepper. I’m always working on the game in my free time. But I don’t have a prep routine or formula like I’ve read about on some GMing sites. Prep for me is drinking beer, listening to music, sitting on my couch with my laptop, and developing things as mood and inspiration strikes. I just enjoy it. I think you have to, in the same way that someone in a band is always futzing around on their guitar or a body builder is always pumping a weight. If I’m not developing new areas, plots, and NPCs I’m fine-tuning and tinkering with old ones. I’m mapping on Roll20, writing up the last session’s log, answering player questions. I’m reading rule books, old published adventures, gaming articles, looking up overhead terrain images from real life and video games I can convert into battle maps. I’m making my OP prettier or using Pixlr to create imagery when a Google search doesn’t yield what’s in my brain.
While Serpent’s Skull isn’t truly an open world sandbox, I want the players to feel like they can do anything as I nudge them from amusement park to amusement park. I want them to feel like they are playing a Bethesda game. There is a plot to follow at their leisure, how they go about it and who they befriend or beenemy on the journey is up to them. And if they go in a cave or a ruined building, there is usually something cool to discover about it. Fortunately, I have all this info in my brain, and in my hard drive, and there are tons of great online tools for random anythings and everythings… I can drop a side quest seed, interesting NPC, a tricky combat encounter or trap, wherever they decide to go.
LightningPrincess (Monica Montana): Jim spends hours and hours working on his games.
What would you say the single biggest highlight from your game has been so far?
We are so early in the campaign I wish we could return to this question in a year, when the players have sunk their teeth into the juicy meat of it all!
The biggest highlight so far for me has not been something that has happened within the game, but after we wrapped up a particularly good session. All my players, my dear friends, thanking me for doing this and shaking my hand and hugging me and I felt so appreciated that I actually cried. I have had in the past, people who I considered friends, tell me I was a terrible GM and a disruptive player. I’ve poured time+energy+money into what amounted to catastrophic campaign collapses. I’ve had relationships end upon realizing how much love and effort I spend on roleplaying games. I’ve given up the hobby several times. I’ve asked myself whether DMing is the best use of my spare time or outlet for my creativity. That moment of affirmation, from these amazing people, let me know a million times over: Sure. Why the F not?
jlwhitington (Kishtari): That would be the “banquet” with the Mongrukoo. The party didn’t support Kish in her original plan to kill all the goblins, and now I’m glad they didn’t. There’s some sort of demony intrigue going on with the chief, (I just know it!) and I’m excited to find out what he really knows about what’s happening on the island. And it’ll be fun to see how or if she manages to get out of this without having to be the Monkey Goblin Queen.
Grizzlyadams (Nemanji): The highlight of Age of Serpents for me has been the interactions between the PC’s and the NPC’s, specifically the situation between Mongrukoo, and the Klixarpillar.
LightningPrincess (Monica Montana): I love the camaraderie of spending time with people who care about me and like being in a group just chilling having fun exploring this playground Jim has created. Taking the unconventional approach and befriending the goblins and discovering Jim had already foreseen this and had stuff ready to go for it was a big highlight. I also like that he has big plans for all of our character’s individual stories as well. I am also interested to see where the potential romance between Monica and Gellic goes and how Gellic will react if he finds out Monica’s secret origins.
Okay, before we get out of here, give us some of your best GM’ing pearls of wisdom.
Marry into money. Failing that, remember that if you are running a face-to-face game, and your attendance is good, it is not because your friends have nothing better to do or they are just humoring you. You are doing something right. Keep doing that thing. A lot of people these days are just fine maintaining friendships online or via texting. The outside world is crowded and busy and scary (my point of reference is Chicago, remember). This hobby now competes with virtual options and video games that scratch an itch a lot of gamers have, and a lot of gamers are just fine sitting at home scratching. More power to them. But if you have people willing to make the trek to your place week after week—keep doing whatever it is you are doing. Time is precious, time with friends is beyond measurable.
Alrighty folks! That’s going to do it for September. Tune in next month to see what October brings. If you know a campaign that you’d like to see featured here, nominate them in the forums!